A list of their own

Has Harry Potter changed the course of the New York Times Book Review -- and the children's book market -- for good or for evil? It depends on whom you ask.

Published August 16, 2000 7:01PM (EDT)

It takes a wizard to change the course of the Times.

For more than a year, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series has occupied the top three slots of the New York Times' adult fiction bestseller list. Last month it was about to capture a fourth when the 68-year-old national institution debuted its first new offshoot in 16 years and effectively evicted the Potter books from the prime real estate they had monopolized for more than 20 months.

Harry Potter managed to grab the top four slots on the new list, a children's books bestseller list that includes 11 other children's and young adult (YA) titles. The new list is located below the adult roster in a quarter that is considered either a ghetto or a lucrative niche, depending upon whom you ask.

"It's been a long time coming," remarks Joanna Cotler, publisher of Joanna Cotler Books at HarperCollins Children's, "and I'm thrilled that Harry Potter is what finally pushed them into it. I've always looked at the New York Times' bestseller list as wonderful free advertising. Now children's books get it, too."

Not everyone is quite so thrilled with the new digs for children's literature. For many in the publishing business, the new bestseller list is the publishing equivalent of moving from a penthouse into a basement apartment. "It was startling to me that they would choose the moment when the fourth Harry Potter would be hitting No. 1 on the adult list," says Barbara Marcus, president of the Scholastic Children's Book Group, J.K. Rowling's American publisher. "The Times became a spoiler of it all. I always believed that bestseller lists are just that, and they should be recording and reporting the bestselling books in the country."

Francesca Lia Block, author of YA crossover classics such as "Weetzie Bat" and "Girl Goddess #9," confesses, "If I were J.K. Rowling, [being relegated to the children's bestseller list] would really disturb me because it would say that this book is only for children."

Cotler, who is Block's editor, is also sympathetic to Marcus' frustrations. "Scholastic owned the New York Times adult bestseller list for the last year. Now, they only have the opportunity to be on one list, which is a hardcover-only list, and the slot that they had for paperback no longer exists. Is it fair when they are outselling every book by miles? Not really. That would never happen to an adult book."

And Craig Virden, president and publisher of Random House Children's Books, exclaims, "3.8 million copies: That's an adult number! And even though I think that anything that draws attention to children's books is great for business, I have to say that this is really unfair to Scholastic."

Marcus notes that 30 percent of the first three Harry Potter books were purchased by and for a reader 35 or older. "It would seem to me that if we were tracking adult bestselling reading behavior, one would say that the book should be on both lists."

New York Times Book Review editor Chip McGrath is keenly aware of how difficult it is to discern between children's and adult literature, since most books for children are purchased by adults, so he is leaving it to publishers to "tell us if it's a children's book or a grown-up book. That's how we'll track them on the list."

Herein lies the rub. If publishers can choose how their books will be classified, those who view the children's list as a ghetto have the option to place a bid on other real estate. For an example, one need only look as far as "Pastoralia" author George Saunders, who announced in an Atlantic Monthly article in April that his next book, illustrated by Caldecott winner Lane Smith, was a kids book -- only to have his Random House editor, Dan Menaker, insist that it was most definitely a book for adults.

In an interview with Inside.com, Marcus jokingly threatened to hire three people whom she will dub the "Scholastic Adult Sales and Publishing Division" to position Harry Potter V as an adult title.

When we spoke, she considered a different strategy. "If we tell the New York Times that 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets' is appropriate for both adults and children, that it is in fact meant for adults as well as children, perhaps we can get them to put it on the paperback list when it comes out. I plan to discuss this tactic immediately with my staff."

But some writers of mostly adult books see no shame in appearing on a children's list -- and probably welcome the publicity. Richard Howard, who is better known as a poet and a translator of adult literature, landed on the New York Times children's list for his new translation of "The Little Prince." He applauds having a separate list, and doesn't believe it will keep adults from buying children's books. "The idea of ghettoizing children's book writers is not something being accomplished by the children's bestseller list," he says. "I think it is already accomplished -- it has occurred in the culture."

In fact, the list should promote interest in new children's titles, according to McGrath. "Part of the hope is that the list will bring attention to the many good children's books that don't quite hit the Potter stratosphere, which is almost none of them. Here is a place for them."

A place on any New York Times bestseller list comes with many tangible advantages that may dramatically increase a book's sales and extend its shelf life. Bestselling books often receive coveted front-of-the-store placement in bookstores, and are discounted up to 40 percent, especially at online retailers like Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.

But McGrath does concede that the decision to create a children's book list was not solely motivated by philanthropic concerns about the state of children's literature. He admits, "We are also making room on the adult list for adult titles -- not that what has replaced the Potter is exactly illustrious."

It is true that the present adult list has replaced Rowling's fantasy with the genre romances of Danielle Steel and Catherine Coulter, which may reflect the reading public's annual immersion in summer beach reads. But if ejecting Rowling has yet to raise the literary merits of the adult list, the creation of a new list has focused attention on new children's book writers who otherwise might never have had the chance to make a bestseller list.

One such author is Daniel Handler, who now has three of his first five books in the kiddie Gothic serial "A Series of Unfortunate Events" included in the top 25 books on the children's list. As Handler, who writes his children's books under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket, points out, "Any children's book worth its salt should also appeal to adults." He adds, with a bit of exasperation, "To believe that there shouldn't be a children's list because it demeans Harry Potter is like saying there shouldn't be a nonfiction list because it implies that 'The Perfect Storm' isn't as good as 'The Firm.'

"Just because adults are reading books that are on the kids list doesn't seem to me a reason to keep it in the same category. 'The Story of O' gets passed around among a lot of 14-year-old boys, and that doesn't make it a book for children. Harry Potter is a book for children, and Scholastic is a children's publisher."

McGrath agrees, noting that Harry Potter was "published as a children's book. Then it got crossover attention, which is terrific and we all applaud it. But that doesn't automatically make it a book for grown-ups. Is it a good book? Of course it is." McGrath does not believe, however, that he has done a terrible disservice by relocating the Potter books to the newly created list.

Parents, motivated by nostalgia, frequently buy the children's books they remember from their own childhood -- and often shy away from new authors. Timeless classics, like Margaret Wise Brown's "Goodnight Moon" and Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are," continue to sell millions of copies each year. Because of this phenomenon, publishers have come to rely on their backlisted titles to generate most of their profits. But with its own bestseller list, the children's book industry can promote its new generation of writers better than ever before.

Even Oprah Winfrey has given a nod to the current hoopla surrounding children's literature. The woman who has helped transform 37 books into bestsellers by including them in her book club devoted a part of her Aug. 3 show to kids books. But for now, she's not likely to make much of a mark on the children's bestseller list: Nineteen of the 21 books she named were backlist titles (no Harry Potter), which render them ineligible for the Times bestseller list, and of the two frontlisters, one was the Newberry winner "Bud, Not Buddy," which appeared on the adult list until it found a new home on the children's list, weeks before she recommended it.

One undeniable casualty of the new list is young adult fiction. "It's a sad fact that YA gets lost in the fray," sighs Cotler. "In children's publishing, unlike adult publishing, we publish books for 6-month-olds and we publish books for kids going to college. The range is so huge -- how can that be possibly covered in one list?"

McGrath says he is taking this issue into consideration. "YA does tend to sell much more in paperback, and YA purchases are made by the kids themselves. Because there is no paperback component to the children's list, that de facto seems to discriminate against YA titles. We're going to try to address these issues in the next month or so." While he didn't reveal his plans, the most obvious solutions would be to expand the children's list to include paperback titles or, less likely, to create a separate children's paperback list.

One change that Scholastic's Marcus would like to see implemented is expanded review coverage of children's titles. As it is now, the children's books insert appears in the New York Times Book Review only twice a year. "I find it interesting that they have chosen to say, 'Oh, children's books are so important that we're going to devote more time to them,' but they're certainly not sacrificing any column space."

At this early stage, McGrath has yet to decide if the new list will result in more reviews of children's literature. "We may well, as we always have, take certain books in the children's category and review them in the part of the Book Review nominally reserved for grown-up books. We've done that with the last two Potters, and I hope we'll continue to do that. But how we'll review them differently remains to be seen."

Jacqueline Woodson, an award-winning author of children, YA and adult novels, doesn't believe that reviews are the crucial factor to parents when they decide what books they will buy for their children. "No one but school librarians, teachers and children's book publishers reads them. With the list, more people can now see what books are out there in a way that they weren't seeing them before."

In fact, libraries and schools -- whose sales figures are not included when compiling bestseller lists -- constitute 50 percent of the children's and YA book market. A highly visible list of what's new in children's literature could encourage trade consumers -- i.e., parents and their kids -- to play a more active role in that market.

"Parents are often in a quandary about what's new, what's good and what's available for children," explains librarian Ilze Long, an assistant branch manager who supervises the children's department at the Reston Regional Library in Virginia, a branch of the Fairfax County Public Library, the sixth largest system in the country. "From my 20 years' experience, I think parents will look to the New York Times children's bestseller list for advice."

While McGrath is careful to clarify that the bestseller list is "not necessarily a guide to anything other than what people are buying," he agrees that "parents buying books for kids are looking for whatever guidance they can get. There's very little of it out there, and if you're a parent, here at least is something that just tells you what other people in the same boat are doing."

Love it or hate it, the children's bestseller list is here to stay. Marcus concedes that Scholastic will do its "best to figure out ways to promote new works. The Times bestseller list has always been a bestselling list to look at and learn about new books. But we'll also be looking at other bestseller lists as an indication of what America is reading."

As for those of us who are out to sate our inner child, or an actual one, we'll be reaping the benefits at the bookstore checkout line with 15 more titles at 40 percent off.

Thursday: A profile of Lemony Snicket, whose "Series of Unfortunate Events" has landed on the New York Times Book Review's bestseller list for children's books .

By Kera Bolonik

Kera Bolonik, a writer, critic, and editor, is the executive editor of DAME Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Elle, Glamour, New York magazine, Salon, Slate, and the New York Times Book Review, among other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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